Across the blue-and-white wall of his house in a slum, along with a portrait of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, is a flat-screen television. Bought on EMI, it’s the first “luxury” purchase made by a boy whose name cannot be revealed.
In Sangli, a power centre of Maharashtra and a crop market for the region, the 18-year-old is seen as a poster boy, along with 49 others, of a pilot project for institutionalising juvenile reform and rehabilitation. While there have been piecemeal cases of rehabilitation across the country, Sangli’s is the first where the measures are institutionalised.
“It’s time my father rests,” says the 18-year-old who, tried in a criminal case by the Juvenile Justice Board, spent a year in counselling. His father earns Rs 10,000 a month working as a cook at a restaurant.
The teenager now maps and installs CCTV cameras across Sangli’s trading and industrial hubs as, ironically, one of the foot-soldiers in the district’s bid to check crime. He keeps a careful account of his earnings — Rs 24,000 in three months — and plans to open a business in the next few years.
An experiment conceived by Superintendent of Police, Sangli, Suhail Sharma, the project now has people from academics and a correction facility in-charges to industrialists, offering their shoulders for the juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18 to catapult to a world beyond the boundaries of their socio-economic environment.
Of the 53 juveniles part of the programme called Disha, meaning ‘direction’, 12 — accused of everything from petty offences to heinous crimes — now have jobs earning Rs 7,000-Rs 10,000 per month, while 40 are undergoing training.
The success stories include a youth, who was booked for assault, but now works in Godrej after a course in preservation and refrigeration, and another who has completed a course in mobile phone and computer hardware and repairs and now works in a shop. “There were days I felt lost. At the shop I meet boys and girls from good colleges, and have decided to pursue my education,” he says.
Police officials are waiting for another boy to turn 18 to help him get a rider’s licence to enroll as a Swiggy delivery boy.
With the 2015 amendment in the Juvenile Justice Act allowing for those accused of heinous offence to be tried as adults, Sharma adds, “this then makes it equally important to probe how the flow of children into the world of crime can be stemmed”.
Sharma came in as SP, Sangli, in November 2017, in the wake of the custodial death of a man held for robbery. He was at the time part of the SIT probing the murder of CPI leader and rationalist Govind Pansare in Kolhapur.
Sangli soon revealed itself, as a district with an average 5,800 cases annually, 8,000 people behind bars, problems ranging from caste and property disputes to bitter politics. With anger against the uniform high due to the custodial death, on his very first night, Sharma found himself writing ‘Fontana’ in his diary. The police department in California had come up with a model called ‘Re-Entry Support Team’ to stem recidivism, through community initiatives. Soon, Sharma was spending his nights studying crime patterns, histories of criminals, and the undercurrents beneath affiliations.
Then, one August morning in 2018, in walked Milind Kulkarni. The caretaker of a Sangli home, who had spent 20 years amidst juvenile accused, Kulkarni had come to believe “mistakes happen”.
With a fragile budget and inadequate staff, Kulkarni had “an unusual request”, says Sharma. A repeat offender at the home had assaulted him. He was also known to bully younger boys. Kulkarni asked Sharma for a night patrol at the home. That’s when Sharma knew he had found his Fontana.
“Patrolling will happen, but are you open to a better response?” Kulkarni recalls Sharma’s poker-face offer.
Soon, the “punitive” worked with the “reformative”. Notes were exchanged.
Kulkarni disclosed a trend. Many children brought to the home would receive visitors, “always men”, but never their families. He realised these men belonged to the cartel, always keeping “a door open for the boys to return” to crime. The incentives were always material — expensive clothes, mobile phones, “chicken, mutton”. For the cartel, using children below 18 meant the Juvenile Justice Law would kick in, limiting punishment. Sangli was a great case study, for the collapse of agro-based businesses and the rapid rise of a moneylending class that used gangsters for extortion, who in turn roped in the juveniles.
Constable Ramesh Molaj, 56, posted at the observation home, adds, “They come bearing tattoos of gangs. That is how brazen the cartels are,” he says. A new fad, he adds, is ‘happy birthday politics. “Ganglords and politicians put the names and photographs of juveniles in their posters. It means acceptance. The boys picked for petty offences speak of their vatt (influence) showing us these posters… Once a child reaches that poster, we know it’s over. It’s like an additional qualification!”
Of the inmates at the home that Kulkarni looked after, around 60% were often “extremely poor” and “planted” by gangs, says advocate Mukta Dube, a former member of the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) in Sangli.
A closer look also showed that the ratio of repeat offenders among the children produced before the JJB was rising. The correctional homes were not helping. “The children realise punishment is meagre, they do not feel part of the societal values, and tend to go in for a criminal subculture,” says Dube.
Sharma says he went back to all the MCOCA cases he had registered. “Their records showed they were juvenile when booked the first time.”
Soon, police, along with the observation home, began mapping regions and triggers behind children in those localities joining crime. Every case study was shared with Disha volunteers to check the status of the child.
Disha volunteers, mainly from NGOs Snehalaya Foundation and Khaki Foundation, including Kulkarni, went to these areas — in a first for any observation home — and “started the reform outside, and not just at the correction facility”.
“Some families were unsure, some were afraid. It took a while to convince them,” recalls Dhananjay Arwade of Snehalaya.
Kulkarni says that by the end of 2018, only a few among the juveniles they had zeroed in on came on board. “But we knew even 10 joining us would have an impact and others would follow,” he recalls. “We started engaging with other boys in the locality with past records through our success stories,” says Prashant Patil of Khaki Foundation.
Advocate S M Pakhali, a JJB member, says, “The board’s recent review of children under Disha shows purpose and a steep decline in the sense of alienation.”
Under Disha, the JJB puts a juvenile through a network of counsellors, to study their psychology, even as another set probes the “circumstances” that might explain their acts.
Poonam Talwar, a counsellor with Disha, says there is a seven-tier confidence-building exercise, which includes a “nature” exercise, as part of which the juveniles plant and nurture trees. In Disha’s one year, this has translated into 125 trees on two acres of land.
Once vetted by the JJB, the juveniles are also sent to training centres, chosen as per market trends and their aptitude. Avinash Mutar, 42, a trainer at one such centre, talks about one of his trainees who didn’t miss a day, even coming with a fractured leg. “I learnt determination from them.” Another stopped eating tobacco realising he won’t be able to spit between classes.
Mutar teaches the juveniles surveillance infrastructure at the centre, which comes under the National Skill Development Corporation, while there are courses on “how to fold clothes”, branding for jobs in malls, and industrial tailoring. More are being planned.
Last week, one of his trainees, Mutar says, sent him photographs of his first camera installation at a factory premise in Sangli. “I always respond to their messages, even if it’s post midnight,” he says.
While of the 1,900 students the institute has groomed, only six have been from the observation home, Mutar says, “It’s stupid to compare numbers. Men are not made in a day or a year. It takes ages.”
However, on December 4, 2018, a meeting with corporates threw a fresh challenge. Initially, Disha volunteers say, the idea of “employability of criminal minds” didn’t get enough support. Police then sat down with traders, businessmen. “We can be facilitators, but we needed more motivators,” Sharma says.
Sharma, who is enrolling more auxiliary units to get the juveniles job opportunities, adds, “Our polarisation should pull stronger than polarisation from the crime world.”